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21 December 2017

Bicorne hats, Brexit bluster and ill-advised Budget banter: my political awards of 2017

The Award For Casual Bragging? There could only be one winner.

By Helen Lewis

It’s the most magical time of the year – when I look back on 12 months in politics, and decide who has been naughty (Theresa May, I’m looking at you and your fields of wheat) and who has been nice. Yes, it’s the New Statesman Totally Prize-Free And Ultimately Pointless Political Awards.

Escape of the Year. Plenty to choose from here. Runners-up include Tristram Hunt and Jamie Reed, two former Labour MPs who quit the Commons expecting that their marginal seats could go blue at the next election. (Reed at least was right.)

Ivan Rogers, Britain’s former permanent representative to the EU, also bailed out early, leaving his job in January with a warning to civil servants that they had to “speak truth to power”, aka “tell David Davis that Brexit might have a few downsides”. Then there was Nick Clegg, liberated by the people of Sheffield Hallam, who defenestrated him in June, and now reborn as a doughty defender of the EU. But the crown goes to Kezia Dugdale, who made two daring getaways – first from the leadership of Scottish Labour, and then to Australia, as a contestant on I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! She withstood being showered with insects with the thousand-yard-stare of a woman who was just glad not to be facing Nicola Sturgeon at First Minister’s Questions.

Prop of the Year. There might be rules against product placement in films, but no such strictures apply to the Commons. After “Fiscal Phil” Hammond saved May during her conference speech by passing her a throat sweet, she returned the favour during the Budget, tossing a packet onto the Despatch Box. Unfortunately, this meant that the Chancellor was only too audible as he made a series of terrible jokes – including one about driverless car investment leading to Jeremy Clarkson once again being “snubbed by Hammond and May” – which you could see coming over the horizon about ten minutes in advance.

Shadowy Organisation of the Year. Nice try, Cambridge Analytica. Yes, 2016’s “shadowy data firm that caused Brexit and Trump” was on manoeuvres again this year, reportedly working for Kenya’s incumbent president Uhuru Kenyatta, who was eventually sworn in for a second term in November after the summer’s first election was scrapped because of “irregularities”. (CA’s mysterious psychometric profiling must really work, because in the second ballot, Kenyatta scored 98 per cent of the vote.)

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Still, the firm couldn’t compete with this year’s hot new contender, the Legatum Institute. The think tank benefits from a more sinister sounding name – redolent of offices with suspiciously wipe-clean surfaces and the faint smell of human flesh – and from having a former adviser to Iain Duncan Smith at the helm. Legatum’s fellows include jazz-loving Labour peer Maurice Glasman and Cambridge academic Victoria Bateman, who once turned up to a meeting naked to protest about Brexit. (Come on, we’ve all done it.) The Legatum Institute also got a publicity boost from claims that its economics director helped draft the infamous “BoGo” letter from Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, telling Theresa May to hurry up with a nice hard Brexit or they would jolly well take their ball home.

Joke of the Year. An award that literally no one in politics won, but so, so many people lost. Here, for example, is Boris Johnson at Tory conference on Jeremy Corbyn’s interest in South America: “He says he still admires Bolivarian revolutionary socialism.” Horrifying smile. “I say he’s Caracas.” And here is Labour’s Emily Thornberry at the party’s annual get-together: “I know that Boris doesn’t like paternity tests, but maybe we need one for Brexit.”

After all this, imagine my excitement when the Telegraph website promised “32 funny jokes about Jeremy Corbyn, political liberals and left wingers”, adding: “Who says the left have all the best jokes? Here are a few funny jokes at the left’s expense.” Tragically, clicking on the gallery to reveal these zingers resulted in finding out they are only available to those with a Telegraph account. Shame. I bet there was a really great one about Venezuela in there, too.

The Schrödinger’s Document Award. On 3 November, Brexit secretary David Davis explained to Hilary Benn, chair of the Brexit select committee, that he couldn’t hand over a document containing details of the effect that leaving the EU would have on 58 sectors of Britain’s economy. “It is not, nor has it ever been, a series of discrete impact assessments examining the quantitative impact of Brexit on these sectors,” Davis wrote.

There was only one problem. In June, he had told the BBC’s Andrew Marr that “we’ve got 50, nearly 60, sector analyses already done”. Then in October, he claimed that May had not read the reports, only summaries, because they were in “excruciating detail”. Did these documents ever exist? The scrappy, redacted dossier eventually presented to the Brexit select committee suggested strongly that some poor civil servant spent too many late nights deep in DExEU desperately thinking up what sectors 47, 48 and 49 might be.

The “Oh, this old thing?” Award For Casual Bragging. There could only be one winner: France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron. Asked by Der Spiegel if his speeches made him sound boastful, he replied: “Ambition is never modest. If modesty means to have middling success, then I can only say: I’m not interested.”

Macron then mentioned how much he had learned from Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission, revealed that unlike everyone else in the world he had read Patrick Süskind’s other novels, not just Perfume, then added for good measure that he was, mais oui, writing a book himself: “But for now I am keeping it all in the desk drawer.” Buying a bicorne hat and ill-advisedly invading Russia can only be months away. 

This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special